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Chayei Sarah: The Improper Prayer

10/26/2021 03:07:48 PM


Rebekah at the well – Bible stuff

Just because I've been studying Torah most of my sixty-one years doesn't mean I know the first thing about it.  The narrative has depths and levels that I have not even begun to glimpse.  In this week's parsha, for example, we come to one of the chattiest characters in the entire Bible: Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, sent to the family seat by his master to find a shidduch (match) for Abraham's son, Isaac.

The Torah provides a very detailed snapshot of the whole adventure.  Eliezer prays that G-d provide not only a sign when he's found the right match but basically that G-d handle the whole deal: "HaShem, G-d of my master Abraham," he says, "cause it to fall out that the young woman I ask for water at the well and who offers not only water for me but for my ten camels -- may she be the one intended for my master's son!"

What chutzpah! Rather than doing any work on his part, Eliezer just asks for a miracle.  Not only that, but afterwards G-d obliges by sending Rebecca, a kind, generous, strong and beautiful young woman who does exactly what Eliezer is requesting.  And then, Eliezer tells Rebecca's parents the whole story in great detail, including the miracle of Rebecca's timely arrival in accordance with his prayer. 

Is that how it's supposed to work?  If you face a challenge or great task, just pray it out and G-d will set it right up?

What about human free will?  What about human partnership with G-d and human effort?  What about those tragic times when prayer is not answered? 

Clearly there is something that the Torah is trying to say here.  But what?

Here is how it seems to me.  The midrash actually faults Eliezer for his prayer.  The midrash says, "It was not appropriate for Eliezer to make this request.  And yet it was answered."  Why? 

Because Eliezer wasn't asking that the most well-connected candidate appear.  Nor the wealthiest, prettiest, most savvy or wisest.

Eliezer was looking for kindness.  

And because of that -- the realization that kindness isn't just a good trait, an important trait, a nice trait to have, but that it's the most crucial trait in relationships, in building a friendship, a family, a community, a world -- the prayer is answered. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Conservative Movement's greatest teacher, said, "when I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people." 

And that also might be why we get this particular story in such great detail.  The rabbis comment: the laws of the Torah are conveyed in laconic phrases and even derivations of snippets.  But Eliezer's journey to find Rebecca is given at great length. Why?

Translation: all the laws of the Torah are learned out from very, very terse phrases and short verses.  So why do we get an entire column and a half devoted to Eliezer?

The midrash concludes: G-d loves the small talk of righteous people more than the tendentious arguments of the wise and scholarly.   

Eliezer lives his life in dialogue with G-d.  This is the model that the Torah is promoting: live every moment of your life with a sense of meaning.  We never know when it's our moment, when what seems like a random word or encounter will change the world.   The midrash says that Eliezer is one of the seven mortals to enter into the world to come alive without having to go through physical death.  Maybe this is saying that for a person who is in dialogue with G-d, the mundane world and absolute, true reality are the same thing.  Greatness and meaning shine softly through every moment of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784